Trapped in Afghanistan: Those left behind grapple with unresponsive U.S., dimming hope of escape

An Afghan interpreter who worked alongside the U.S. during the war said he made three trips to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in failed attempts to escape the country with his wife and three children before the U.S. troop pullout.

The last time was when a suicide bomb attack killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops a the airport gate. His family survived unharmed, but they remain trapped in the Taliban-controlled country and fearing for their lives.

“That is painful for me that I have worked for four years. Not one. Not two. I worked for four years. They evacuated smugglers, terrorists, beggars, street boys. But we are the ones [who should be] eligible,” said the interpreter, whose name The Washington Times has agreed to conceal to protect him from Taliban retaliation.”We were left behind,” he said. “This is very painful for us.”

He was among the tens of thousands of Afghan allies and more than 100 Americans left behind when the U.S. troops departed the war-torn country just before midnight on Aug. 30.

They face an uncertain and perilous day-to-day existence as President Biden and his State Department grapple with what to do next.

In one of the largest evacuations in history, the U.S. managed to airlift more than 124,000 people out of Afghanistan before the complete withdrawal ahead of Mr. Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline.

The Pentagon estimated that of the more than 60,000 Afghans evacuated, only about 7,000 had applied under the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program designed for interpreters and others who helped the U.S. war effort and now face retribution from the Taliban.

The interpreter who spoke with The Times said he compiled the required paperwork for his SIV application just months before the withdrawal. His application was still in the beginning stages as Operation Allies Refuge was announced, and didn’t make the cutoff. His paperwork would remain mired in the still-growing State Department backlog when the Taliban seized control.

Weeks before the U.S. withdrew, his home in a rural Afghan province was destroyed in a clash between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. He fled to Kabul with his family and took refuge at a shelter for internally displaced persons.

He and his family fled the shelter when the staff told them that staying there had become too dangerous with the Taliban overrunning the city.

With few options, he decided to brave the Taliban checkpoints en route to the airport and take his chances among the crowds at the gates. As thousands of desperate Afghans inundated the streets outside the airport, he said, U.S. troops were simply unable to parse the crowd for those that were eligible to resettle in the U.S. under the SIV program.

Despite the risks he had taken by working alongside the U.S., he said he was just another face in the crowd and chaos at the airport.

“It was an emergency situation. They couldn’t compare which one is eligible and which one is not,” he said.

Since then, he’s been trapped in Afghanistan, unable to work, unable to get a flight out and unable to escape by land across the border. Back in his hometown, he said, the Taliban have been searching for him by name.

The State Department maintained a backlog of 18,000 principle SIV applicants — and close to 50,000 of their spouses and children — which had long been hobbled by bureaucratic delays before the withdrawal. But the number of eligible applicants under the SIV and similar programs ballooned as the withdrawal deadline neared, and some say will likely continue to grow.

Some say the backlog could take years to clear.

The State Department said it remains committed to bringing to safety Afghan allies and U.S. citizens “who have expressed a desire to leave.”

The State Department has continued to help a trickle of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents make it out of Afghanistan.

The State Department said that last week it assisted in the overland evacuation of four U.S. citizens. The announcement marked the first U.S. government facilitated evacuation since ending air evacuations out of Afghanistan last month.

On Thursday, flights resumed out of Kabul after “careful and hard diplomacy,” according to a White House statement.

A Qatar Airways Flight carrying 20 U.S. citizens departed the newly reopened runway Thursday, and another departed Friday with 19 U.S. citizens.

The administration also announced last week that it would continue to work with the private individuals and nongovernment organizations that came together to help evacuate thousands from Afghanistan in the last days of the U.S. presence.

“The evacuation effort has been a monumental task and the U.S. government understands the need to coordinate across agencies, as we have done, but we also appreciate the efforts of NGOs and private citizens and have identified a greater need for coordination there,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The State Department will lead the outreach with advocacy groups, nonprofits, and others, working closely with DoD, to get a structure in place which will add more consistency and focus to our shared goal of helping those who wish to leave Afghanistan, including U.S. citizens, LPRs, and at-risk Afghans to depart.”

Challenges remain.

Several charter planes at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport have remained blocked throughout the past week amid unraveling State Department communication with the Taliban over documents required for passengers to board the flights.

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael T. McCaul of Texas called the episode a “hostage situation.” He worried that the Taliban will continue to use U.S. citizens stuck in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to gain recognition from the U.S. government.

Furthermore, nongovernment groups trying to facilitate escape routes from Afghanistan have run out of answers for the trapped.

“Our biggest challenge right now is what to tell people,” said Benjamin Bryant who worked as part of the Digital Dunkirk movement, a group of former Defense Department officials and service members that came together as private citizens to evacuate interpreters and others amid the chaotic weeks leading up to the pullout.

“People keep saying ‘do you have any updates for me, sir? Can you give me anything new?’” he said. “We don’t actually know. There is no clear direction.”

During the height of the evacuation, his group was able to support those they were in contact with by sharing real-time updates on the situation on the ground and putting people in touch directly with those who could get them into the airport.

Now, he is looking to the State Department to provide clear guidance on what exactly is needed to ensure these individuals have the best chance to make it out when the opportunity arises. The focus now, he said, is less on Hollywood action-style evacuations, and more so on ensuring those left behind have their paperwork in order.

“There is no central repository,” Mr. Bryant said. “And as hard as Digital Dunkirk is working to aggregate all of the resources, the fact that we don’t know what all the resources are, and the fewest number of resources we have are from our government, NATO, and the international community resources, that’s a problem.”

Another problem is that when the newly formed Taliban government decides who can be evacuated, and when, many of those who are eligible will not have the appropriate paperwork on hand.

“It should not be hard for me to find out what government forms do people need to fill out,” he said.

Mr. Bryant said it is not useful to politicize the SIV program. He said the program has been challenged for a variety of reasons across several administrations.

“What I want to know is what are we doing now,” he said. “And if the State Department has to process a five-year backlog, I would really like to know, have they hired people to do it?”

The interpreter who spoke with The Times said that after the U.S. withdrew, he still had hope that the State Department would contact him with an update on his application status. He had been in Kabul for close to a month since then and thinks his odds for making it out of Afghanistan anytime soon are dwindling.

“I did try and I emailed and called,” he said. “I waited for more than a month and I couldn’t get any response.”

He eventually left Kabul. He said he attempted to cross the border into a neighboring country with his family. Thousands crowded the border crossing, he said. But the border was closed.

“They will not let anyone, anyone cross the border,” he said.

He returned to his hometown but is still unable to return to the home that was destroyed before he fled to Kabul. He stays with family but says he has to move every couple of days to a new place to avoid the Taliban.

He learned through a former coworker that the Taliban had been searching for him by name when he returned.

“The Taliban has not changed,” he said. “Their ideology and their school are in the past 20 years, and they are not changed.”

At the same time, he said, many Afghans now face economic peril. He said the banks have restricted cash withdrawals to $200 per week, which he said is not enough to live on.

“People have worries about their future,” he said. “There is no work. Thousands of people left their job. Starvation and poverty have started now.”

He said he does not know how much longer he can wait for the State Department’s approval of his visa and has considered making another attempt to cross into a bordering country illegally.

“Now I’m searching for another option because under high threat I cannot stay in my country,” he said. “So I’m searching if I can illegally cross from Afghanistan’s border and go to another country. At least I can physically stay safe out there.”

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